How to Establish Rapport in the Work Place

My friend sent me an email link to an article about small talk. I was initially thrilled for the small talk advice. However, I was a little put out that the article was titled, “Asperger’s Syndrome at Work: Why Small Talk Matters.” To make matters worse, the article is actually an excerpt from the book, Asperger’s Syndrome Workplace Survival Guide: A Neurotypical’s Secrets for Success.

Why would ANYONE, much less a close friend, send me an Asperger’s Syndrome article? There is nothing wrong with me, you see.

Of course, if there is nothing wrong with you, you probably don’t need the shirt, but that is NOT the point I am trying to make here.

So, of course, instead of reading the article, I call her yelling, “What the hell! You think I have some sort of syndrome?!?”  To which she responds that I most likely have a multitude of syndromes for which there are no cure and/or medical treatment and why can’t I just read the goddamn article for Christ’s sake?

Still a bit annoyed, I find the article and begin reading. My indignation dissolves at the first sentence:  “If you are like many people with Asperger’s Syndrome, you categorize small talk as a nonsensical ritual where people waste time talking about stupid subjects no one really cares about.” Crap. I think I have Aspergers.
According to Barbara Bissonnette, author of the Asperger’s article, small talk is actually a “critical workplace skill.” Sharing friendly comments with your fellow employees “sends the message that you consider yourself to be part of the group.” Also, you never know when you are going to need your car jump-started and if you go around being an ass to everyone, probably no one will help you. The article didn’t come right out and say this, but I’m sure it is what Barbara was getting at.
I will now summarize the most important points of the article combined with valuable insights from my own personal experience. I won’t bother to separate these in any way because what I have to say is just as relevant, if not more so, than the published work of a writing professional. In fact, I guarantee that after reading this, we will ALL be winning at small talk. Ready?
There are three very important factors to consider for winning at small talk. These include:
1.     Discussion Length

Small talk is the discussion of a general topic for the typical duration of five minutes.  The actual passage of time may seem much longer than five minutes, so you need to find a way to keep track of the time without being obvious. When the conversation is near the five minute mark, you are done. Actually, after four minutes, you can break from the conversation abruptly at any time.
2.     Topic Choice

You should choose a neutral topic that won’t make people uncomfortable or angry. The article specifically says not to call anyone fat, but you should probably already be aware of that, so I won’t go over it. If you follow sports teams or watch popular programming, these are great conversation topics.  However, if you do not watch televised football or keep up with who got fired from Dancing with the Stars, this is a serious shortcoming on the small talk field and you are never going to win.
3.     Personal Connections

The main point of small talk is to make connections with others. According to Barbara, in order to do this, you have to keep the discussion going for at least two or three turns. In other words, respond to people in a way that encourages conversation rather than prohibits it.
For example, if a guy is standing there in the break room and you really want that Diet Coke or whatever it is you went in there for, you will probably end up talking to him. He might say something like, “Did you see the baseball game last night?” You have two paths available at this point. The first is the more direct path in which you say, “no,” grab the Diet Coke and leave. Giant fail! Answering “no” is automatically losing at small talk because you and your opponent have only each had one turn. To win at small talk, you must the take the second path and say something like, “I don’t follow baseball. Do you play?”
I know exactly what you are thinking. This type of statement is leaving the door wide open for this fool to go on and on about baseball and you will never get to drink your Diet Coke. Plus, how do you know that this isn’t going to turn into a situation like when you are nice to a stray dog? This person could follow you home and then refuse to leave your porch until you discuss the entire cast of Glee. Granted, if this type of thing were likely to happen, surely they would outline it in the book. However, I haven’t read the entire book, just the one article.  If someone follows you home and refuses to get off your porch, you should definitely buy the book. They probably tell you how to get people off your porch in the Appendix.
A Successful Small Talk Example

Allow me now to enlighten you with my own personal experience. I am sitting in cubicle world, when one of my fellow cubicle dwellers decides to spark up a conversation. Although my sense of duty in participating in the conversation immediately conflicts with my intense need to end it as quickly as possible, I now recognize the importance of winning at small talk. Luckily, the topic of choice is a neutral one:  trees.  I am winning already.
Cubicle Guy would like to hypothetically have a tree in his yard. Apparently, Fugi applies are in season at the moment, and these are Cubicle Guy’s favorite type of apple. If Cubicle Guy would have had planted a tree of this type in his yard, say, ten years ago, he would now be able to eat all of the apples and have some shade. 
In order to win at small talk, I must choose my response carefully. I consider telling Cubicle Guy it is impossible to plant trees in the past, but I can’t confirm this for a fact. So, instead I tell him, “I like plum trees. I would like to plant a plum tree in my yard.”
Things seem to be going well. Cubicle Guy is on his second turn, and I am pretty sure the conversation has taken at least three hours. Winning!
This is when Cubicle Guy states that I should not be planting anything right now, much less a tree, because there is going to be a huge drought next year rivaling the record drought of the 1950’s.
Now I am pissed because I didn’t want to plant a damn tree in the first place. How did I end up with Cubicle Guy telling me what a dumb idea it is to plant a fictional tree in the middle of a future drought?!

However, I MUST MAKE connections and get to that second turn.
Therefore, I tell Cubicle Guy that he is completely right about the tree planting.  To further support his theory, I tell him that we are actually 10,000 years into a major mass extinction event with inevitable ecological crisis. In addition, our ocean currents are slowing and sometime next week everyone will be living either in icy wasteland or barren desert. And also, there was something about sunspots increasing or decreasing, whichever it is, we end up fighting each other for food. Absolutely no one should waste time planting trees right now when we clearly all need to be out hoarding cans of creamed corn.
And then it happens…I WIN! I should get some sort of small talk prize or something.
Evaluating your Success

Now look back on your conversation. Did it last for approximately five minutes? Was your topic neutral? Did the conversation exchange between both participants at least two or three times? If so, you WIN! You are now free to go back to your desk and watch YouTube videos. Here is an exceptionally good one:
Enjoy your day.

For Further Research on inevitable ecological crisis, go to to read “We’re all doomed.” In case you have time before we are completely doomed, there is also a great post about whether or not your shampoo is working.
To learn more about the barren wastelands caused by ocean currents and sunspots, you can read Frozen Britain: How the Big Freeze of 2010 is the Beginning of Britain’s New Mini Ice Age, by Gavin Cooke. 
However, I would not recommend reading this book unless you enjoy waking up at 3:00am worried about your lack of food fighting and scavenging skills.
Why Small Talk Matters” was an excerpt from  Asperger’s Syndrome Workplace Survival Guide: A Neurotypical’s Secrets for Success, by Barbara Bissonnette. Think how much you would be winning if you read the whole thing.